The Appeal of Ruins

by frankbeswick

Ruined castles and churches exercise a strange enchantment on their visitors' minds.

Living in Britain is to be in a land where history is close, and it is always possible to find not far from you ruins of many different ages. I can get a tram into Manchester and not far from my tram stop are the remains of a Roman fort. Sometimes we find visitors flocking to the ruins of abbeys destroyed at the Reformation and walking meditiatively in their "bare ruined choirs." At other times we find people visiting ruined castles. What attracts us to places that might well be pulled down and their stones re-used? Do they in some way enchant us or make us think?

Picture of the Roman Forum by Frank Beswick

Ancient Stones

I had what I now know to be a panic attack when I was eight years old. We were holidaying in North Wales and were taking a picnic at the ruined Rhuddlan Castle, whose mighty mediaeval stone keep had seen many a year and much turmoil. Mother was pregnant and just wanted to sit, Dad sat beside her on the grass by the empty moat, and Veronica was in her trolley, which left room for me and my brother to race madly round the walls. I knew about castles, knights and men at arms, for I had seen pictures of them in books,and so I ran not just with my body, but with my imagination. Taking a cut through the ancient keep, in which I was the only living person.  I was suddenly struck with terror. I imagined that I was being watched, that hundreds of eyes were staring down at me from the walls, I imagined men at arms gazing down from the ruined ramparts. For a moment I stood transfixed and then fled out to the safety of my parents.

I can still remember clearly the moment of terror fifty nine years ago, and can find a parallel in Seamus Heaney's poem, Death of a Naturalist when at six he realized the terror that lurks in nature. I attribute the panic attack to the fact that I was growing up and becoming aware of the vastness of time and of the eons that have gone before me, peopled by folk that I can never know. Being a small child on his own surrounded by massive, ancient walls caused a surge of fear generated by a sense of vulnerability.

Never since have I had such a panic attack in ruins. Some of them, like the Roman Forum or Pompeii are so busy that you don't have the solitude needed  for imaginative engagement.But when you visit some ruins you have time to pause and reflect. I have on more than one occasion visited the ruined monastery on Llandwn Island off Anglesey, a tidal isle that can be accessed on foot. Standing in the ruined church which is now filled with nettles and looking up through the vanished roof to the sky above I cannot be anything else  but sad for what has been lost, for how much that was good that disappeared at the Reformation. 

The poet in me [we all have some poetry in us] allied with the gardener when I saw the nettles, for I know that they only grow in fertile soil. So maybe,I mused, the monastery is still fertile for us today, preserving some of the spirituality of the place for us to savour in our age  for a brief moment, sparkles from the light of a receding past,a reminder that the modern age has its serious deficiencies.


Stone Circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle
Castlerigg Stone Circle

Spirituality Ancient and Modern

Unlike Stonehenge, which is a ruin, Castlerigg has not fallen down, it has merely been abandoned. I was disappointed when I made my one visit to Stonehenge, for it was when the public could only look from a distance, and I have not been to that part of the country since then. But Castlerigg is quiet and peaceful, set against the backdrop of the Northern Cumbrian hills. Here you have the time and peace to let your imagination explore reality. You can wonder about how the circle integrated with its landscape and speculate, even imaginatively recreate the feelings that its worshippers had. But I wonder if visiting stone circles can be too easy. I once ascended the Carneddau in North Wales above Pen Maen Mawr and visited a small circle, a mere chapel compared to the cathedral that was Stonehenge. Having made an exertion to reach it made the place all  the more significant for me. To see what was once a much-loved place  lingering forgotten in the unfeeling hills brought up a sense of sadness and an awareness that there is so much lost to me that archaeology cannot reach. 

But there are many ruined abbeys in the British Isles,testimony to the religious violence and intolerance that characteried the Reformation. Take a look at Whitby Abbey in the picture below. The abbey was destoyed first by the Vikings and later by the protestant reformers, but it can be accessed by the general public. Even in the seventeenth cenury there were people who mourned the bare ruined choirs of the desecrated  monasteries. This was too dangerous to say in the Tudor period, but the more tolerant Stuarts were happy with such comments. Ordinary people knew what they had lost, despite government threats to free speech in the Tudor period.

To walk in its empty walls and sample what is left of the architecture is to get a flavour of its ancient beauty. Those of us as fortunate as I am to have some experience in Latin liturgical music from my time in Catholic theological college can imagine the ancient chants that were sung within its walls. We are reminded that there is in the music of the Roman Catholic Church a profound beauty that touches the soul and inspires inner peace. This music is an expression of the Catholic spirit that the modern age cannot give us.

Such places can and should be locations for quiet meditation and reflection. Christian meditation is not emptying the mind and has nothing to do with the Hindu syllable om. It is reflection on God and his relationship with the world. When you visit a religious ruin reflect on good and evil and how they interplay in individual lives and society. You should regard ruins as a places of peace where you can renew your spirits in an atmosphere free of economic bustle, antidotes to the modern age and its stress-generating exactions on our mental health. They also show us in the case of ruined abbeys that wanton destruction does not leave good results, that something beautiful and good that was lost can still call to us through the ages and enchant us with its mystery. To some degree they are challenges to twenty first century civilisation and its great deficiencies. 

Ruined Abbey

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Updated: 10/11/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 18 days ago

No human knows the answer to these questions. Only God knows.

DerdriuMarriner 18 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous, same-day observations and question!

That comment and the third comment down respectively consider demons as "rogue angels" and Satan as "an archangel who went wrong."

Do the above-mentioned Hell-dwellers stay that way forever or will they be joined by more archangels gone wrong or rogue angels or will these rogue angels and archangels vanish?

frankbeswick 20 days ago

The demons are rogue angels, so it is thought, so lack human souls. We do not know much about the damned, whether there is any hope for them.

DerdriuMarriner 20 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous, same-day observations and questions.

It intrigues me how the Church interpreted Dame Julian of Norwich (Nov. 8, 1342-1416?) in her lifetime and from her lifetime onward to now.

If Hell-living Satan lacks an archangelic equivalent of a human soul, then his Hell-living angelic and archangelic followers each lack one too, correct?

So might Hell lose its bedeviled human souls even as it maintains its soul-less leader and his Satan-mustered soul-less followers?

frankbeswick 20 days ago

Satan was never a human being, but an archangel who went wrong. He therefore never had a human soul.

DerdriuMarriner 20 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observations and question.

The empty-Hell showing to Dame Julian of Norwich (Nov. 8, 1342-1416?) appears to assist all souls toward their salvation.

But does everyone have souls?

Might it be possible for someone such as Satan either never to have been soul-full or to have destroyed or extirpated or lost or transformed it?

frankbeswick 21 days ago

The church has always stated that Hell is forever, but Dame Julian of Norwich had a vision, which she called a showing, which showed Hell to be empty. She said that the Trinity will perform a work yet to be imagined in which all souls are saved.

DerdriuMarriner 22 days ago

There's the unfortunate saying of the poor always being with us.

Might the same be said about Satan and his Hell? Or might there be something to terminate or transform him and it?

frankbeswick 22 days ago

He does notnseem to have anything to be happy about.

DerdriuMarriner 22 days ago

Thank you!

Hell is ruled by Satan. It is not a place where a human is happy, correct?

But what is the thought about Satan? Is he not happy there either?

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